An August 15 release day for a series that advocates for acceptance of the ethnic, religious diversity of the country amid a totalitarian regime, Sacred Games 2's arrival couldn't have been timed any better. One of the earliest digital shows in India that wooed people towards streaming platforms, Sacred Games in its first season had a lot going for it - terrific cast, nuanced performances, a narrative style shorn of cliches and its thematic relevance. Its unprecedented success has only raised the bar for other web-series to catch up, which hasn't happened as frequently as you would expect. Sacred Games 2, though, comes at a very different timeline - the digital content consumption is on an all-time high, the expectations are huge and the creators need to live upto the bar they have set for themselves. Does Sacred Games 2 deliver? It's a yes and a no.
The challenges for the second season of a popular series are many, the characters are already established in the minds of a spectator which doesn't leave much ground for novelty, the premise is more or less familiar and it also needs to work as a standalone visual material (for those who haven't watched the first season). So Sacred Games 2 needed a brilliant narrative to stand tall and despite its sincerest of intentions, it is wobbly.
The first season ended at a juncture where there's a looming nuclear threat to the country, leaving you curious about how the tainted constable Sartaj Singh would go onto preventing a possible mishap. There are unexplored layers to the notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde that unravel a new set of complications for Sartaj and his counterparts. Religious intolerance, uncalled-for victimisation, a manipulative world and a spineless system are major thorns in Sartaj's flesh.
The 1993 Mumbai blasts have wiped away an era of gangster glory in the city. And Ganesh Gaitonde, a ravishing gangster with supposed swag, is no longer a major force in Mumbai. He's freed from jail and locked in a boat that leads him to Kenya. Under the supervision of a RAW representative and help from a spiritual guru, Gaitonde is rescued but he's stripped off his wings. Yet marking a return to form, Gaitonde builds his stature in an alien country, that ultimately ensures his return to Mumbai. Despite being a well-known name, he continues to have identity issues, which sparks a dangerous association with the spiritual guru responsible for his revival. Sartaj Singh doesn't have it all easy, especially knowing of his father's involvement in the same. A professional and personal battle ensues across eight (exhausting) episodes.
The point that Sacred Games 2 so convolutedly tries to make is more or less conveyed in the first season. It hovers around the fact that religion and ethnicity differences are tools that right-wing groups use quite tactfully to divide their people and spread their political propaganda. There's nothing much in the second season that provides shock-value or tension. Several characters travel through the narrative and they don't contribute much to the series beyond filling the frames. Sartaj Singh's strained equation with his father and ex-wife is also explored – but it has no meat. Though the father's character creates some sort of intrigue, to begin with, the promise is lost sooner. A similar arc is explored for Gaitonde's character as well.
In a lot of ways, this season is about characters tackling their inner demons than the ones outside. There is a sense of helplessness and vulnerability in the characterisation of Gaitonde, the officer Majid and Sartaj and there are way too many sub-plots trying to establish that. The much-hyped spiritual guru character played by Pankaj Tripathi rings in some promise. How, in the name of emotional solace, he cashes in on people's weaknesses, for destructive and sometimes sexual reasons makes it an interesting character to watch out for. However, this premise also leads you to an overtly philosophical and abstract talk that takes the fizz off the series. Sometimes, leaving things unsaid work for the visual medium and here it's too much of spoonfeeding that does the damage, both orally and visually.
There a few sporadic pulpy moments – how Gaitonde produces his biopic that is directed by a character modelled on Ramgopal Verma (named Ram G Verma, on whom the series takes a humourous dig at). The commercial failure of the movie has a character telling Gaitonde, 'don't dilute your character trying to dance with women and emerging a hero, you're a villain and the film would have been a superhit had it shown the real you.' And in the earlier portions of the series, Gaitonde in a conversation with a smaller don says, 'You'll prosper when you think with your d**k and not your mind,' also hinting at the latter's impotency. Unlike the rough-and-tough dimension of the character in the first part, you see him laugh, crack jokes with a poker face, weep (which one feels is a lot due to the presence of director Neeraj Ghaywan in the lineup).
In a probable last-ditch effort to spring some momentum to the proceedings, the final episode is that extremely nailbiting stuff this series promised. Several questions are answered, perspectives are provided and there's this heroic element of Sartaj doing every bit to save his city from a nuclear disaster. The performances are otherwise solid. Saif continues well from where he's left off in the first part, Nawazuddin Siddique has a wonderful role to assert his presence yet again and so is Girish Kulkarni in the shoes of a home minister for the State. Kalki Koechlin as an associate to Pankaj Tripathi brings her trademark-suave quality to her portrayal as well.
Sacred Games 2, on the whole, tries too hard to be reflective and poignant for the times. There are too many looming moments that don't add up to anything concrete. It gets into a shell, is bumpy and doesn't provide the adrenaline rush of the first part. Watch it only if you must. And in all probability, hope for a much-better third season!